Monday, December 26, 2005

The Gift That Keeps on Giving


The entire world does have one thing in common other than the unending injustices. The holiday season brings this common thread into the light. It's something we share, something we pass down to our children's children. It's the legacy we leave behind for our future generations. No, it's not our art or music I'm referring to. No, it's not our knowledge of what I speak of. It's none other than our "garbage". And the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Years, produces as much as one tenth of the entire annual total of un-recycled garbage or approximately 25% more than any other time of the year. That equals to about one million extra tons per week in the U.S., added to an already high figure of 600,000 tons of trash per day or 210,000,000 tons a year, or the equivalence of 4.3 pounds of trash per person per day.

According to the Use Less Stuff Report, there are enough holiday cards sent to fill a football field 10 stories high and thousands of miles of wrapping paper discarded during the holiday season. Most wrapping paper and cards are not recyclable due to the presence of inks and foil, and the packaging of styrofoam, plastic peanuts, twist ties, or other non-recyclable trash ends up going to the land fills also. Paper products make up over 40% of our trash, and this year approximately 3.35 million tons of paper were used in catalogs alone. Our "need" for paper costs us over 900,000,000 trees yearly, and I don't know how most of you feel about that, but in my opinion, that's a "heluva-lot-a-trees" and that's just in the U.S.!


While paper accounts for the bulk of our trash, yard waste that isn't composted or recycled comes in second, amounting to about 18% of our yearly garbage, or close to 24 million tons yearly, according to the Enviromental Defense Fund. But with the age of information comes new and very deadly trash in the form of electronic garbage, or namely "computer trash". According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are close to 2 million computers which end up in our waste stream on a yearly basis. It has been projected that by this year there could be over 300 million trashed computers buried in our landfills. This is not to mention other electronic equipment such as televisions, microwaves, cell phones, or refrigerators. This electronic "stuff" is full of toxic material such as lead, mercury, and cadmium and is becoming a Global Threat.

We send most of this garbage to landfills where it's usually compacted and sealed into airtight holes in the ground where it is unable to decompose and remains preserved so I suppose our grandchildren can figure out what to do with it! What is ironic is that a lot of this trash we bury every day will most likely be in better shape than our houses or cars decades from now! The time capsule to beat all time capsules! Let's face it, we are the "throwaway culture". We are continually giving the gift of garbage that just keeps on giving for generations to come. Like the energizer bunny, we just keep "throwing" and "throwing" and "throwing"! For all our accomplishments and advancements in technology and knowledge, we really suck as human beings!

I once helped my wife come up with an idea for her English composition assignment and actually, I did the entire paper for her. I did this because she was loaded down between full-time status at school and caring for three kids at home (four including me), and well, it just seemed like the supportive thing to do. My idea was to compare the legacy of human beings of the twentieth century to the legacy of our early Native Americans. I compared the pop-tops from aluminum cans and the plastic six-pack rings to the beautiful artifacts of our early country's caretakers. I won't go into detail, but I'm sure you get the picture! However, my wife didn't do well on the paper, but that's another story and has more to do with my inability to write rather than the point of the comparison. We are trashy people! :) We use, we abuse, and we throw away!

However, the garbage explosion of the U.S. has created new areas of study and new specialists are required in the study of Garbology. The High Priest of Garbology, William Rathje, who also co-editors the Use Less Stuff website, has created this new form of analyzing human behavior by digging through our garbage. Here is an interesting nostalgic look at the "timeline" of America's relationship with garbage. The time-line runs from pre-1800 to post 1950. And if you want more, just go check out the History of Waste.

You know, my sons and I collect antique bottles, and the large majority of these come from late 19th to early 20th century trash dumps of individual old homesteads. The normal dump areas are in adjacent ditches or creeks within close proximity of the home sites. So I can relate to Rathje's need to dig through garbage, maybe not for the same archaeological reasons of studying human behavior and it's impact on society, but just because we like "old stuff". And in an abstract way of thinking, digging through old garbage for stuff is kinda like recycling isn't it? :) So as you toss that next piece of trash in the compactor or trash can, think about whether it will help future generations understand the behavior of our society. And then ask yourself what sort of message is this piece of trash going to relay to our future generations! I know I'm going to try to do better! I know I can! I hope we all can!

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